starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
written and directed by Terrence Malick
by Walter Chaw Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is his attempt in a secular way (a very Romanticist way), much like Milton attempted in a religious way, to explain the ways of God to men and, more, to further define God as something created in the heart of Man. It's immensely mysterious, and immensely grand. In scope, its only parallel might be the mysterium tremens at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but even that doesn't try to get at the heart of what made the Monolith so much as why. The Tree of Life is about how fathers disappoint their sons and how sons perceive that they disappoint their fathers, and it may along the way be about why a religion revolving around a Father who never has to explain why He disappoints His children has taken the hold that it has (the film opens with a passage from The Book of Job). But that's ancillary to the topic at hand for Malick, because really what he's interested in is the way that sons will always fail to be at peace with their relationships with their fathers and how maybe, maybe that sense of loneliness, confusion, abandonment, and shame is the true and secret mark at the centre of what it means to be a creative being in a world forever in the act of being created. The struggle against the Father, the simultaneous struggle for His approval, is the fuel that fires Man's desire to make--and excel. It's Freud, isn't it, and Nietzsche, and every German/Austrian smarter than me (Kirkegaard and Wittgenstein and Heidegger, whom Malick translated and studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in pursuit of his doctorate), as filtered through Malick's naturalism, which, far from the chaos of Antonioni's relationship with nature, reflects a more harmonious, metaphorical kinship--like D.W. Griffith's. Very much, too, like the dream sequences in John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, which see the past as impossibly resplendent because they are a creation in the mind of the virgin Eden of childhood.
The Tree of Life is about representation. About the unreliability of memory and the simultaneous quality of memory that carries with it absolute truth. In its way, then, it's also about filmmaking, in that what is seen is not analogous to what is perceived. Ambitious? At least ambitious, but The Tree of Life is enormously affecting, too. It mainly takes place in two timelines--one a sepia-coloured past, the other a gunmetal-grey present--and somewhere in-between, Malick indulges in an interlude that dramatizes the creation of the world from gas to include the last age of dinosaurs who, indeed, appear to feel pain, loneliness, and senses of betrayal and abandonment--or is that just our desire to project our emptiness onto the emptiness of these digital phantoms? And, really, their creators did it first, didn't they? In the aforementioned sepia-coloured past, there're three young boys and their parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain); the Father is angry, frustrated, frightened of looking ridiculous, the boys and their Mother are frightened of the Father. The eldest son is Jack (Hunter McCracken), who will grow up to be an adult (Sean Penn) in some city with a wife of his own and a need that comes to him in the middle of his life to at last understand not only his parents but his own place in the world as well. The middle son, R.L. (Laramie Eppler), is doomed to die somehow in a war, we surmise, but we don't know which or how or when. Scenes of his parents mourning are almost impossible to watch and, placed as Malick has placed them, render even tougher subsequent scenes of R.L. at play set during one hazy, endless summer.
The film, though, belongs to Jack, troubled and coming to terms with the sternness of his father, the perceived weakness of his mother, and the way that a neighbour woman's dress presses against her legs when she crosses her lawn to her steps. He runs with his little hooligan buddies, breaking windows in an old abandoned house and killing helpless animals--all the petty larcenies and unremembered sins of children left to themselves. He breaks into the neighbour lady's house and watches how her underwear, freed from a drawer, blows thin and soft like the curtains in an open window in her room. He puts it in a stream and watches the water carry it away. It's rapture, this life of a boy as told by our most lyrical filmmaker taking his time. The theme repeated throughout the piece is "You do it, why can't I?"--the son eternally questioning a Father unknowable, it's the theme of all our art, Malick suggests, and the only thing dreamt of in our philosophies. It's not too much to venture that what he's attempting here is to talk about the source of everything that's fecund in the process of masculine creation--the enigmatic filmmaker examining that which has driven him to make some of the most difficult and hypnotically cryptic love stories (and what is at the core of The Thin Red Line but a love betrayed?) in the history of the medium. It echoes Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York in that it's a career statement, a film that answers the question of what it would be like if one of our most emotionally-evocative artists were to finally tackle ultimate questions instead of distracting himself with proximate ones. Malick's aim doesn't seem anymore to be mythmaking, in other words, so much as getting to the heart of where myths come from, why we construct them, and what it is, in their construction, that we're trying to understand.
Pitt is phenomenal in a role written so richly and with such sympathy that a moment where he calls his son "sweet boy" lands with a kind of gravity that's difficult for me to express. It's possible it's only meaningful to me because my father, on his deathbed and incapable of speech, wrote out "nice boy" on my palm with his finger--but I don't think so. The Father is stentorian, mysterious, understood as one thing by the audience and another altogether by his sons, with the tragedy being that what we know of this man's shortcomings and self-loathing will remain eternally unknown to his children--or at least unknown until it's too late to reconcile the men they've become with the man that he was. It's the tragedy at the heart of the aside in Ed Tom's dream to close No Country with Old Men: that the shade of his father is of a man who didn't live as long as the son. There was never a better illustration of nostalgia and melancholy. I think therein lies explanation for Malick's two timelines--the interim gulf bridged in an epilogue on the liminal plain of a beach (midway between earth and the eternal) that, again, I can really hardly write about more than a week after seeing the film. It's harder now, in fact, in remembering it than it was to watch, and maybe, in the attempt to explain the ways of Malick to people who don't revere him, that's as good a way as any to defend him. The Tree of Life is a game-changer and, like Milton's work, it's not really up to me to say whether or not it's good--only that it's true in a way that has nothing to do with what happens in it and everything to do with what happens in me while I watch it. It's the possibility of the medium taken to its limit: poetry, language, thought, and image. I have a hard time believing there'll be a better American film this year. Originally published: May 27, 2011.